When you start to look into the subject of estate planning you see a lot written about employing strategies that are intended to help you avoid probate. Unless you are in the field you may not know exactly what probate is and why you might want to avoid it, an explanation may be in order.

Probate is the legal process that the typical estate has to pass through, and it is supervised by the probate court. The court must determine the validity of the will, and it is the venue within which any claims against the estate are heard. So if you wanted to contest a will or attempt to collect a debt owed to you by the deceased, you would do so in probate court.

There are two primary reasons why some people would prefer to avoid the process of probate. One of them is that it is expensive and it can reduce the value of your estate by anywhere from 2-7% depending on the specifics of your situation. There is a fee that must be paid to the court itself, and the personal representative of the estate is going to have to retain a probate lawyer, who will of course charge a fee. In fact, the personal representative is entitled to a fee as well, and he or she may have to bring in an accountant to assist with tax matters and an appraiser of assets as well as an estate liquidation company. All of this adds up.

Aside from the expense involved in the probate process, it is also time consuming. Depending on the size and scope of your estate and whether or not any aspect of the will is contested, it can take anywhere from six months to multiple years for the process of probate to run its course.

As you can see, there are some significant pitfalls that go along with the probate process, and this is why so many people are interested in doing whatever may be possible to avoid it.

Due to provisions contained the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, the estate tax was repealed for 2010. However, the estate tax is scheduled to return to its pre-2001 existence on January 1, 2011. For this reason it really has not had much impact on long term estate planning unless you were somehow certain that you were going to pass away in 2010.

The thing about the return of the estate tax in 2011 that is quite relevant is the fact that the exclusion amount will return to $1 million. It was $3.5 million when we last had to contend with the levy in 2009, so many estates that were previously protected are now going to be vulnerable to the estate tax. If you are in this position, or if the value of your estate has always exceeded the exclusion amount, a useful strategy that can be implemented to gain tax efficiency is that of gift giving.

The idea is that if you give gifts to your heirs while you are still alive you reduce the value of your estate to the point where it comes in under the $1 million exclusion amount. Of course, there is a gift tax to discourage this, but there are significant exemptions. The lifetime gift tax exclusion is $1 million, so you can give gifts at any time and in any increments throughout your life free of the gift tax as long as the value of these gifts does not exceed $1 million.
However, in addition to this lifetime exclusion, each taxpayer is entitled to give as much as $13,000 annually to an unlimited number of recipients, and these gifts don't count against your lifetime gift tax exclusion. You may also make unlimited educational and medical gifts, paying the tuition or medical expenses of as many people as you would like to equaling any sum of money free of the gift tax.

Contact our office today to schedule a complimentary consultation on how tax free gifts may reduce your estate's exposure to future estate taxes.

Wealth Counsel
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